27 November 2022

27 November 2022

You will probably have already noted that I do like a catchy title.  It’s a long tradition in our family which you may have noticed with Peter’s drama scripts.  It even extended to Lissa’s honours thesis, when her supervisor asked her did she not want to choose a more academic title. 

The title of my reflection, though simple, expresses everything I want to say about today’s reading.     “Live ready!” 

Advent is an important season in the church’s calendar.

Advent – a time of waiting and anticipation. 

Sometimes it feels like we are always waiting for something – something to arrive, something to happen, something to start, something to finish… 

In the last three years we have done a lot of waiting. 

Including those of us those of us who have made use of online shopping! 

waiting for our parcels to arrive

waiting for the supermarket to deliver

waiting for the tradesman to turn up…

And especially, waiting for the world to be done with COVID.

But Advent is also about the spirit of waiting.  The readings in this month leading up to Christmas are about waiting for the coming of the Messiah.

This morning our reading from Matthew is about waiting.  But it’s about more than just waiting.  It is a warning to be always ready for the arrival…

The reading warns that

the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour

Since we are all familiar with the story of the birth of Jesus as recorded in the Bible, this warning suggests something more than we expect.

Bill Loader sets the scene. 

This passage sits in the context of Jesus’ final speech, his last chance to address the important issues with his disciples.  Matthew will have been thinking of what might have been said, but the focus is doubtless on what needed to be heard in his own day (and in every age).  This is also the context in which we find ourselves in the church year with the focus on Advent: the coming of Christ, which (here) begins with a focus on the final coming and flips back by the end (of Advent) to the first coming.

So, to the story…  As you know, I always first look at a reading from a storyteller’s perspective. 

The story begins with this theme,

…about that day and hour, no one knows

The theme is restated in the climax of the second episode

for you do not know on what day the Lord is coming

It is also the climax of the story

for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour

The structure of these three episodes is relatively straight forward. 

The theme is announced in the beginning

about that day and hour, no one knows

and is then developed in relation to the days of Noah.

The second episode is about the separation as a sign of the surprise and the not-knowing; two in the field, two women grinding meal, and so on.

The injunction is to keep awake and to have an attitude of preparation because you don’t know when the coming of the son of Man is going to happen.

That is reinforced in the third episode, the parable of the thief.

Three different metaphors for the coming of the Son of Man.

The opening saying is a dramatic way of reminding us that the main thing to know about the future – is God!

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father

The hope and idea of the return of Jesus, based deep in the Jewish traditions of apocalypse, is a longing for justice, and for God to set things right. It is a good hope, but it cannot happen according to our traditional expectations.

What we can take from this passage is that it asserts strongly:

…in the end God, as in the beginning, God

It also asserts: in the end accountability and justice, a ground for hope; in the end peace among the nations.

Jesus rejects the possibility that anyone other than God, including Jesus himself, knows the answer to when the Son of Man will come.  He then goes on to stress the importance of wakefulness (or watchfulness) and readiness.

They knew nothing (Matt 24:37-39)

Jesus reminds the disciples that in the days of Noah, people went about life as usual, right up to the moment when the floods came. The emphasis here is on the sudden, unexpected devastation that was to sweep them away, for which there was no warning, no call to repentance, nothing that would alert them to what was coming.

They knew nothing until the flood came

In the story of Noah, the people were ignoring the warnings.

One taken, one left behind (Matt 24:40-41)

Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

These parallel illustrations are not meant to depict a moment when the righteous are plucked up from the earth and taken to heaven, while others are “left behind” to await tribulations and final judgment.  For first century audiences familiar with the ways of the Roman Empire, being left behind was not necessarily preferable to being taken.  For the people of Noah’s day, being swept away was definitely not a good thing.  Instead, these sayings simply depict sudden, surprising separation, without indicating cause for judgment or reward on the part of those taken or left behind.

Keep awake, be ready (Matt 24:42-44)

The final admonition and illustration underline the importance of staying awake and being ready. This is not advice for crisis moments, but a call to ongoing normal readiness.

…if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.

Like the people in Noah’s day, or the men in the field and the women grinding meal, the owner of the house might have chosen a different course if he had known a thief was in the neighbourhood, but none of them knew.

And the admonition to us also is,

Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Pastor Serena Rice of the Abiding Peace Lutheran Church, New Jersey probably speaks for all of us.

I’ve been longing for Advent.  I am tired and my weeks are so full, and what I have been longing for has been the invitation to wait!

To remember that God is coming into this world as an act of God’s great, self-giving love.

And then we get today’s readings…

Keep awake!… for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

And it will be like the flood, coming to sweep all away;

And it will be like two people at work, and one is suddenly taken with no explanation;

And it will be like a thief breaking in to the house, in the middle of the night.

This is not the Advent I have been longing for!

Not only does this sound really scary and nothing at all like Emmanuel, God with us, but…

Why in the world is this the gospel text for the first week of Advent… the week where we are encouraged to reflect on HOPE?

Instead we get

Keep awake!… for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

Do ‘we’, who live in an individualistic world, all assume the ‘you’ is talking to ‘me’ rather than ‘us’.  But in the Greek, the ‘you’ addressed is plural.  And that makes all the difference for how we understand the task of keeping awake to be ready for Christ’s coming – we wait, and we prepare, and we witness… TOGETHER.  This is the hope of the first week in Advent.  We do not wait alone.  On our own we can never be ready.  But together…

As we move into a year focussed on Matthew’s Gospel, let me remind you of Matthew 25, another lesson in being ready all the time.

…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

It is clear that He often comes to us in guises we do not expect or recognise – hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, alienated, even in prison.  As well as coming at times we are not expecting.  If we are ready for him and accept him, we are part of a transformed world, a world where justice prevails, a world full of hope.  Together we can do this!

Let me finish with a poem written by my niece, Rev Sarah Agnew

Keep watch from your present darkness,
anticipate surprise, prepare to start, taken
back: a new beginning. Keep watch
amidst these heady days, joyous
haze that will dim your view of new
horizons. Keep watch along your barren
way, this wasted landscape as you await
the rushing flood of new life sweeping
away the old. Keep watch without
counting time, for you know
not for what you are preparing: but
prepare, attend, awaken: be looking for
the birth of new hope once again –
keep watch, for God is always coming.               

Until the day comes, we ‘live ready’ for we do not know on what day our Lord is coming (Matt 24:41, 44)

AMEN.

Chris Mitchell, November 27, 2022

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